Editor’s note: Guest blogger K.K. Apple is a freelance writer who has infiltrated the Freelancers Union office for a couple weeks to eat all the pretzels. She lives on the internet at kkapple.com.

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One of the hardest parts of starting out as a freelancer is figuring out how to build a network of clients. The internet is a great place to start that process, and offers many options for online job search engines and freelance job platforms. Unfortunately, some of them look mighty shady.

Where do you start? There are a plethora of search engines, endless descriptions, weird technical language, poor spelling, mysteriously unnamed companies, and generally ambiguous tasks. You want me to write how many words for $5? All in all it feels like a lot of foreign Craigslist posts in sheep’s clothing.

Because when you’re looking for jobs online, there’s no bricks and mortar store for you to shake hands with a hiring manager and make sure everyone’s human and there’s not a ferret petting zoo in the break room. So before you go slogging through the World Wide Web, keep some of these guidelines in mind:

  1. Start small. If you’re beginning your freelance career, chances are a million dollar job isn’t going to jump into your lap. And if it does, it might be paid in Monopoly money, which is not so useful for your rent. When you’re exploring a new online search platform, look for manageable jobs and reasonable deadlines.
  2. Ask around. Your fellow freelancers are the best resource for experiences with job sites. Ask! Especially if anyone is asking you to pay a fee or if you are growing wary of the lack of grammar, pay rates, or sanity in particular postings.
  3. **Make sure there’s a contract. **You need a written agreement, plain and simple.
  4. Make sure you read the contract. Develop some freelance contract-reading-eyeballs. If you don’t understand everything, just ask. Talk to someone else who knows what to look for, whether it’s the client, a lawyer, or someone who’s run around the freelance block a few times. Better yet, be prepared with your own contract for every job.
  5. **Build relationships. **Do good work and you will find clients. Maybe that small job you found online turns into long-term work for a company. And then they tell their friends and their friends and their friends until you have enough work to quit your internet trolling and have a full fledged client list. And they’re all friends!

When you’re a freelancer, you represent yourself, but you don’t have to do it alone. Remember how your mom always told you to bring a friend when you’re looking at a new apartment? Bring some of this newfound knowledge and a whole cavalcade of peer advice with you on your job search online.

Photo via flickr.